Manahakama takes the audience on a stunningly beautiful cable car ride up and down one of the breathtaking Trisuli valleys in Nepal, where the Manakamana Temple sits. The unique film succeeds in expanding, perhaps even redefining the definition of documentary film. It’s unexpected and simple, but captivating.
Void of any structural narrative, the film’s entirety is one static shot. Assorted cable car commuters sit facing the audience, taking their journey to the top of the valley. It’s an intimate look into their cable car travel, where the colors of Nepal culture and its people are lovingly spotlighted.
The scenery is brought to life by Super 16mm film and rolling back projection. The sweeping lines of the trees and mountains move behind the figures in the cable cars. The scenery alone is gorgeous to look at, but the stationary shots of the passengers enrich the beauty of scenery to include the beauty of the human nature. In moments that seem exotic to a foreigner (goats riding in a special cage cable-car, a couple bringing a once alive chicken back dead on their return trip), the film is a glimpse in the mundane of everyday life.
A couple of the encounters serve as a history lesson of sorts, informing the audience on the temple’s history, as well as the creation of the cable cars. Three young rockers, with a mewing kitten in tow and decked out in band shirts, wonder what it was like getting to the temple at a time before the ease of the cable cars.
A few of the commuters do not talk, leaving the viewer to take in what they chose to: be it the vivid colors on the scarf of the woman holding the pot of bright flowers, or the always-changing, entrancing scenery. For a viewer that didn’t know what to expect (like myself) or needs more movement to hold his or her attention, at a little over 90 minutes, this can be tedious after the initial interest is subdued.
However, there is charming humor sprinkled throughout the film that lifts the films energy a bit. One of the audience’s favorite moments, and a moment that garnered good-natured laughter, is the shot of two older Nepal women messily eating ice cream popsicles. The women, seemingly close friends, playfully argue over who should get the plastic bag to catch the dripping ice cream. When the older of the two is left without a bag, and can do nothing but let the ice cream melt and drip down her arm, she laughs it off in good nature. It plays out almost like a comedy skit, and that’s what’s so hilarious about it. It’s a lighthearted and enjoyable moment that would fit well into a funny conversation.
Manakamana was a pleasant surprise. The title leaves the temple to the imagination since the shot remains static in the cable car for the duration of the film. Instead, the beauty of the valley is highlighted and the everyday lives of its commuters– ranging from mundane to lively to humorous — are examined in this expertly filmed avant-garde documentary.
Watch the trailer for Manakamana below: